The story of God calling out to Samuel when he’s sleeping always makes me think of parenting a young child in the middle of the night.
Samuel keeps getting out of bed to come to Eli, who’s fast asleep, to ask why he’s calling for him. Again and again, Eli tells him he’s not calling him and to go back to bed.
It reminds me of one of my favorite children’s books, Bedtime for Frances, where Frances keeps coming to her parents’ room with concerns and requests when she is supposed to be asleep. Every parent has been Frances’ father, trying to be patient through the exhaustion, wondering whether the child will ever stop asking for a drink or another kiss and actually rest.
The wonder of the Bible reading might be that — even though he’s tired and half-asleep — Eli realizes that God is calling Samuel and tells him how to respond the next time he hears the voice. Eli tells Samuel to say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
Finally, Samuel goes back to bed, and the next time he is awakened, he follows Eli’s instructions and speaks with God directly.
Eli probably doesn’t get enough credit for being able to think straight and with the clarity of faith in the middle of the night. Parents know how hard it is to think clearly at that hour.
I remember when our children reached a certain age, it felt like an incredible gift to get into bed knowing you probably would get to sleep until the morning.
When I was growing up as one of six children, we didn’t go to our parents’ room unless something was wrong. If we woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep, we were supposed to look at the “happy sign” on the wall next to our bed.
We all had happy signs — posters we had made for ourselves at our mother’s direction. They were covered with pictures that were supposed to bring us comfort. I don’t remember mine well, but I imagine it had kitten and puppy stickers, probably a unicorn and a rainbow, and maybe other pictures I had clipped out of magazines and catalogs.
The truth is that when I woke up in the middle of the night, I could barely see my happy sign in the darkness. But I knew it was there. It is only years later that I realize that the happy sign might have been less about making me happy and more of a gentle reminder that I should only wake up my parents in a real emergency. Eventually I would fall back to sleep. I always did.
These days when I wake up during the night, it’s not usually because someone else woke me. And when I wake up, I try to remember that maybe someone needs my prayers. I think about the intentions I’m carrying for others — those who are sick or sad or troubled or dying — and hand them over to God. There is always someone who needs prayer, and intentions come easily to mind in the stillness of the house.
Perhaps that is why God comes to Samuel then — and why God invites us to meet him there, too, when sleep is elusive in the darkness and quiet of night. You can almost hear him say, “Speak, your Father is listening.”
Rita Buettner is a wife, working mother and author of the Catholic Review’s Open Window blog.